Erin Powers - 2003 Essay Winner


The History of the Congress of Industrial Organizations





An essay by Erin Powers

In the nineteenth century only two per cent of the total work force and less than ten per cent of all industrial workers, were members of unions. In 1881 the Federation of Trades and Labor Unions was formed. Five years later the organization changed its name to the American Federation of Labor. Based on the Trade Union Congress in Britain, the AFL's first president was Samuel Gompers. Gompers held conservative political views and believed that trade unionists should accept the economic system. In 1905 representatives of forty-three unions, who opposed the politics of the American Federation of Labor, formed a radical labor organization, the Industrial Workers of the World.

In 1921 John L. Lewis, leader of the United Mine Workers of America, failed in his attempt to challenge Samuel Gompers for presidency of the American Federation of Labor. Gompers finally left in 1924 and was replaced by William Green.

On November 9, 1935, John L. Lewis joined with the heads of seven other unions to form the Committee for the Industrial Organization. Lewis became the president of this new organization. The purpose of the CIO was to promote and encourage "the organization of the unorganized workers in mass production industries and other industries upon an industrial basis" and "to bring them under the banner of affiliation with the American Federation of Labor." Over the next few years the attempt to organize workers in the new mass production industries was successful and by 1937 the CIO had more members than the American Federation of Labor.

Two weeks after the CIO was formed, then president Green sent each member of the Committee for the Industrial Organization a warning that the continuation of the committee could lead to "dual" unionism. In June 1934, the Committee of the Industrial Organization reached an understanding with the Amalgamated and almost at once announced the formation of the Steel Workers' Organized Committee.
In 1935 several union leaders were dissatisfied with the politics of the American Federation of Labor. And by 1938 the Committee for the Industrial Organization became the Congress of Industrial Organizations. The CIO claimed itself a dual trade union federation.

In 1944 President Roosevelt was interested in bringing into American labor unions as many voters as possible and in capturing their leadership to be used to build up a powerful labor faction, which could control the Democratic Party. He and his allies believed they could control vast power of the government and the labor leaders, along with the immense financial resources that so great a labor movement would have. Communists were interested in getting key positions as union officers, statisticians, economists, etc., in order to utilize the apparatus of the unions to promote the cause of revolution. At this point neither Roosevelt nor Lewis realized the peril they were exposing to the unions and the country. Roosevelt capitalized heavily on the activities of the Congress of Industrial Organizations. The CIO put up half a million dollars for Roosevelt's 1936 campaign and provided him with an immense group of active labor workers who played a large part in the sweeping victory he won at the polls. Also among them now were a large number communists in positions of great power within the new labor movement, some even moving to central power.

In 1943 the Congress of Industrial Organizations and the American Federation of Labor joined forces to attack the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Cost-Of-Living Index. In 1949 the AFL and the CIO joined again on matters of common concern. The Congress of Industrial Organizations recognized that international communism was bad for trade unionism.

The final merger happened with the founding of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions. This was a representation of equality between the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations in the international labor movement. William Green remained the president of the AFL until 1952 when George Meany replaced him. In 1955 the CIO merged with the AFL. Walter Reuther, the CIO president became the vice-president of the AFL-CIO. Meany became the president of the new organization, which now had a membership of fifteen million and rising.

Now to break from the normal. Since the 1980's the United Paperworkers International Union, (UPIU) and the Oil Chemical and Atomic Workers International Union, (OCAW) have worked together to provide a voice inside the AFL-CIO and internationally. In the mid-1990's it became clear that new leadership was needed in the AFL-CIO. In 1996 the two unions talked about a merger. On January 4, 1999 both unions came together and approved a merger by voice vote. That very same day was the birth of the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International Union, (PACE) which is "committed to organizing new members, serving its current members, and bringing about a better world for workers everywhere."

PACE is a union that makes my family proud and I recognize the benefits that unions bring. When I become a nurse I hope to join the nurse's union and stand up for the rights of my fellow coworkers and myself.





The American Labor Movement, Litwack, Leon.
1962 Prentice-Hall, Inc. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.

Champions of Labor, Selvin, David F.
1967 Abelard-Schuman. N.Y.

The U.S. Department of Labor Bicentennial History of the American Worker, Morris, Richard B. - 1976 Gouverneur Morris Professor Emeritus of Columbia University